Robert H. Frank

New York Times columnist
Professor of Management and of Economics, Cornell University
Author, The Darwin Economy

Expert on the ways emotions, values and consumer behavior affect economics.

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Biography

An internationally renowned behavioral economist, Robert H. Frank studies the ways in which social and psychological forces affect market behavior and the ways markets and economics affect human behavior. He is an expert on the causes and consequences of social inequality, and the ways that public policy can enhance market efficiency and improve the well-being of middle-income families.

Robert's current book, The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, pits Adam Smith against Charles Darwin. Robert argues that Darwin's understanding of competition describes economic reality far more accurately than Smith's.

His previous book, The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide: Comon Sense Principles for Troubled Times, is a brilliant behavioral economics perspective on the most important issues of our time, from regulation to taxes to healthcare.

Professor Frank is the author of several other well received books, including Principles of Economics, a textbook co-written with Ben Bernanke, and two books that have received glowing reviews in The New York Times Book Review: Falling Behind and The Economic Naturalist. His books have been translated into eleven languages.

Robert H. Frank is H. J. Louis Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at the Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University. In addition, he is the Peter and Charlotte Schoenfeld Faculty Fellow at NYU's Stern School of Business during the 2008-2009 academic year. He was previously the Goldwin Smith Professor of Economics, Ethics and Public Polity in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences and the Professor of American Civilization at l’Ecole des Hautes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He has served as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Nepal, chief economist for the Civil Aeronautics Board and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

Professor Frank is a regular contributor to the Economic View column in The New York Times.

Credentials

  • H. J. Louis Professor of Management and Professor of Economics, Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University
  • "Economic View" columnist, The New York Times
  • Past president of the Eastern Economic Association
  • Former Goldwin Smith Professor of Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy, Cornell University
  • Former French-American Foundation Professor of American Civilization, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris
  • Former Chief Economist, Civil Aeronautics Board
  • Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California
  • High school mathematics and science teacher, Peace Corps, Nepal

Awards

  • Apple Award for Best Teacher, Johnson School of Management, 2005
  • Russell Award for Distinguished Teaching, Johnson School of Management, 2004
  • 2003 Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought
  • Critic’s Choice Award (San Francisco Review of Books), Notable Book (New York Times ), Ten Best List for 1995 (BusinessWeek), Top Ten Books (China Times), Best Books of the Year List (The London Observer) — The Winner-Take-All Society
  • Knight Ridder's list of best books of 1999 — Luxury Fever
  • Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship
  • Kenan Enterprise Award
  • Outstanding Educator Citation, Merrill Scholars Program

Books

The Darwin Economy

Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good

Robert H. Frank

Who was the greater economist — Adam Smith or Charles Darwin? The question seems absurd. Darwin, after all, was a naturalist, not an economist. But Robert Frank, New York Times economics columnist and best-selling author of The Economic Naturalist, predicts that within the next century Darwin will unseat Smith as the intellectual founder of economics. The reason, Frank argues, is that Darwin's understanding of competition describes economic reality far more accurately than Smith's. And the consequences of this fact are profound. Indeed, the failure to recognize that we live in Darwin's world rather than Smith's is putting us all at risk by preventing us from seeing that competition alone will not solve our problems.

Smith's theory of the invisible hand, which says that competition channels self-interest for the common good, is probably the most widely cited argument today in favor of unbridled competition — and against regulation, taxation, and even government itself. But what if Smith's idea was almost an exception to the general rule of competition? That's what Frank argues, resting his case on Darwin's insight that individual and group interests often diverge sharply. Far from creating a perfect world, economic competition often leads to "arms races," encouraging behaviors that not only cause enormous harm to the group but also provide no lasting advantages for individuals, since any gains tend to be relative and mutually offsetting.

The good news is that we have the ability to tame the Darwin economy. The best solution is not to prohibit harmful behaviors but to tax them. By doing so, we could make the economic pie larger, eliminate government debt, and provide better public services, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone. That's a bold claim, Frank concedes, but it follows directly from logic and evidence that most people already accept.

Princeton University Press (September 4, 2011)

Review

The Darwin EconomyThe Guardian

The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide

Common Sense Principles for Troubled Times

Robert H. Frank

How do people actually behave when confronted with economic choices? And remember, almost every choice we make is economic. While our desires are boundless, our resources are limited and tradeoffs confront us at every turn. Arguing that self-interest alone cannot explain the choices we make, Robert Frank, a leading proponent of the emerging field of behavioral economics, suggests that context shapes every decision and that consistent human foibles matter—no matter how much economists wish to ignore them.

With all of the wit, style, and insight of The Economic Naturalist, Frank turns his gimlet eye to large-scale policy decisions about regulation, tax policy, and health care, and to our personal decisions about paying for food and gasoline and even to how we choose to love.

In our current anxious economic climate, The Economic Naturalist’s Guide’s fascinating and revealing insights have more bearing on our pocketbooks, policies, and personal happiness than ever.

Basic Books (May 25, 2009)

Falling Behind

How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class

Robert H. Frank

Although middle-income families don't earn much more than they did several decades ago, they are buying bigger cars, houses, and appliances. To pay for them, they spend more than they earn and carry record levels of debt. In a book that explores the very meaning of happiness and prosperity in America today, Robert Frank explains how increased concentrations of income and wealth at the top of the economic pyramid have set off "expenditure cascades" that raise the cost of achieving many basic goals for the middle class. Writing in lively prose for a general audience, Frank employs up-to-date economic data and examples drawn from everyday life to shed light on reigning models of consumer behavior. He also suggests reforms that could mitigate the costs of inequality. Falling Behind compels us to rethink how and why we live our economic lives the way we do.

University of California Press; 1 edition (July 9, 2007)

The Economic Naturalist

In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas

Robert H. Frank

The fascinating and playful guide to how economics explains the simple but profound ideas that govern our world.

Why do the keypads on drive-up cash machines have Braille dots? Why are round-trip fares from Orlando to Kansas City higher than those from Kansas City to Orlando? For decades, Robert Frank has been asking his economics students to pose and answer questions like these as a way of learning how economic principles operate in the real world--which they do everywhere, all the time.

Once you learn to think like an economist, all kinds of puzzling observations start to make sense. Drive-up ATM keypads have Braille dots because it's cheaper to make the same machine for both drive-up and walk-up locations. Travelers from Kansas City to Orlando pay less because they are usually price-sensitive tourists with many choices of destination, whereas travelers originating from Orlando typically choose Kansas City for specific family or business reasons.

The Economic Naturalist employs basic economic principles to answer scores of intriguing questions from everyday life, and, along the way, introduces key ideas such as the cost benefit principle, the "no cash left on the table" principle, and the law of one price. There is no more delightful and painless way of learning these fundamental principles.

"Smart, snappy and delightful. Bob Frank is one of America's best writers on economics." — Tyler Cowen, George Mason University, and author of In Praise of Commercial Culture and What Price Fame?

"Fascinating, mind-expanding, and lots of fun." — Steven Pinker, Harvard University, and author of The Blank Slate, How the Mind Works, and The Stuff of Thought

Basic Books (May 21, 2007)

Praise

"Smart, snappy and delightful. Bob Frank is one of America's best writers on economics."
— Tyler Cowen, George Mason University, and author of In Praise of Commercial Culture and What Price Fame?

"Fascinating, mind-expanding, and lots of fun." — Steven Pinker, Harvard University, and author of The Blank Slate, How the Mind Works, and The Stuff of Thought

Principles of Micro Economics

Robert H. Frank and Ben Bernanke

In recent years, innovative texts in mathematics, science, foreign languages, and other fields have achieved dramatic pedagogical gains by abandoning the traditional encyclopedic approach in favor of attempting to teach a short list of core principles in depth. Two well-respected writers and researchers, Bob Frank and Ben Bernanke, have shown that the less-is-more approach affords similar gains in introductory economics. Although recent editions of a few other texts have paid lip service to this new approach, Frank/Bernanke is by far the best thought out and best executed principles text in this mold. Avoiding excessive reliance on formal mathematical derivations, it presents concepts intuitively through examples drawn from familiar contexts. The authors introduce a well-articulated short list of core principles and reinforcing them by illustrating and applying each in numerous contexts. Students are periodically asked to apply these principles to answer related questions, exercises, and problems. The text also encourages students to become “Economic Naturalists,” people who employ basic economic principles to understand and explain what they observe in the world around them. An economic naturalist understands, for example, that infant safety seats are required in cars but not in airplanes because the marginal cost of space to accommodate these seats is typically zero in cars but often hundreds of dollars in airplanes. Such examples engage student interest while teaching them to see each feature of their economic landscape as the reflection of an implicit or explicit cost-benefit calculation.

McGraw-Hill/Irwin; 3 edition (November 29, 2005)

Microeconomics and Behavior, 6e

Robert H. Frank

Robert Frank’s Microeconomics and Behavior covers the essential topics of microeconomics while exploring the relationship between economics analysis and human behavior. The book’s clear narrative appeals to students, and its numerous examples help students develop economic intuition. This book introduces modern topics not often found in intermediate textbooks. Its focus throughout is to develop a student’s capacity to “think like an economist.”

McGraw-Hill/Irwin; 6 edition (February 24, 2005)

What Price the Moral High Ground?

Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments

Robert H. Frank

Many observers interpret the recent wave of corporate scandals as support for the cynical view that self-interest trumps concerns for the greater good. Indeed, this interpretation finds comfort in the intellectual traditions of fields from mainstream economics to evolutionary biology. But is it valid?

In What Price the Moral High Ground?, economist and social critic Robert Frank challenges the notion that doing well is accomplished only at the expense of doing good. Frank explores exciting new work in economics, psychology, and biology to argue that honest individuals often succeed, even in highly competitive environments, because their commitment to principle makes them more attractive as trading partners.

Drawing on research he has conducted and published over the past decade, Frank challenges the familiar homo economicus stereotype by describing how people create bonds that sustain cooperation in one-shot prisoner's dilemmas. He goes on to describe how people often choose modestly paid positions in the public and nonprofit sectors over comparable, higher-paying jobs in the for-profit sector; how studying economics appears to inhibit cooperation; how social norms often deter opportunistic behavior; how a given charitable organization manages to appeal to donors with seemingly incompatible motives; how concerns about status and fairness affect salaries in organizations; and how socially responsible firms often prosper despite the higher costs associated with their business practices.

Frank's arguments have important implications for the conduct of leaders in private as well as public life. For, as he concludes, the better we understand personal motivation in competitive environments, the better we can structure organizations and public policies to promote our true ends.

Princeton University Press (December 2, 2003)

Luxury Fever

Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess

Robert H. Frank

A new luxury fever has America in its grip — the past two decades have witnessed a spectacular and uninterrupted rise in luxury consumption. Ordinary, functional goods are no longer acceptable. Our cars have gotten larger, heavier, and far more expensive. As the super rich set the pace, everyone else spends furiously in a competitive echo of wastefulness. The costs are enormous: we spend more time at work, leaving less time for family and friends, less time for exercise. Most of us have been forced to save less and spend and borrow much more. Frank offers the first comprehensive and accessible summary of scientific evidence that our spending choices are not making us as happy and as healthy as they could. The good news is that we can do something about it. Luxury Fever boldly offers a way to curb the excess and restore the true value of money.

Free Press, January 15, 1999

The Winner-Take-All Society

Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us

Robert H. Frank

If everyday avarice explained the astronomical remunerations garnered by stars and enter(info)tainers, this would be a one-page book, but economists Frank and Cook have broken down the market forces that push salaries into the stratosphere and produced some 200-odd pages on the subject. One major culprit is inherent in mass culture: when millions have a small interest in the winner's performance, however minutely superior to the runner-up's, a large reward goes to that winner (as in a golf tournament). The reward ratchets upward as the market in question becomes overcrowded with aspiring winners (as in acting), but at the end of the game, the inevitable multitude of losers are left with little reward for their efforts. Result: increasing inequality in income. If confined to arts and sports, the authors would just be telling interesting anecdotes, but the phenomenon has invaded law, business, and academia, where the pressure to win leads to sterile "positional arms races." Their solution won't appease free marketeers, who nonetheless will have nothing to object about in this economic analysis of the situation.

Free Press, September 15, 1995

Topics

Robert tailors each presentation to the needs of his audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest his range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.

The Darwin Economy

Success and Luck

A discussion at greater length of chapter nine from The Darwin Economy.

Priority One for Investors: Policies to Hasten Economic Recovery

This talk would explain why investors have a strong interest in calling for policies that would help speed the economic recovery. I discuss some of them in a recent column: Repairing Roads Can End All Kinds of Gridlock

A Pro-Investment Policy that Would Benefit Everyone

This talk would describe a simple change in federal tax policy that would create a dramatically more friendly environment for savers and investors, generate much-needed revenue, all without requiring difficult sacrifices from anyone. I describe this policy in the article linked here: Post-Consumer Prosperity

Videos

Finding New Economic Opportunities Amid the Economic Wreckage

Feedback

A university lecture series:
Dear Robert — I am writing to thank you for giving a wonderful […] Lecture address Monday evening at […] University. I really enjoyed your talk and think it was the best […] Lecture address I have heard. I found your comments and tax proposals to be thought-provoking and well-conceived.

I also found it interesting that the next morning I saw an interview on The Today Show where Warren Buffett endorsed a consumption tax plan virtually identical to yours. Best wishes on continued success with your teaching and lecturing.